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Chapter I
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Celtic Britain

by Nora K. Chadwick

published by Frederick A. Praeger
New York
1963

The text and engravings are in the public domain.


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Chapter III

p52 Chapter III

The Foundation of the Kingdom of Scotland

The outline of the early history of Scotland is a particularly difficult one to trace owing to the fact that at the dawn of the period of our contemporary written records, from at least as far back as the early seventh century, Scotland was divided among four peoples, differing widely from one another in origin, and all speaking different languages. Of these the Picts of the north and east are the most archaic, both in language and institutions, while the kingdom of Dálriada (Argyll) in the west had been occupied by a branch of the dynasty ruling at Dunseverick in Dálriada in Co. Antrim as late as the fifth century. The Britons had occupied, at least from Roman times, the whole of the south, between the two walls. By the mid sixth century a new Teutonic dynasty had superimposed itself in the north-eastern territory of Roman Britain, founding the Anglian kingdom of Bryneich (Bernicia), and this now political element rapidly extended its authority up south-eastern Scotland, annexing the Britain area of Manau Guotodin and the whole of the old area of the Votadini.

Before the foundation of the kingdom of Dálriada (Argyll) all Scotland north of the Antonine Wall as well as the Hebrides and the Northern Isles had been ruled by the Picts, and apart from Argyll the Picts continued to be the rulers till the ninth century. Their language, which has survived only in proper names and undeciphered inscriptions, is probably a mixture of an indigenous non-Indo-European language and some form of Celtic akin to British (later Welsh).1 They are commonly called Picti2 by Latin writers, but their native general name was Cruithni.


[image ALT: A map of Scotland, northeastern Ireland and northern England showing the distribution of the principal tribal groups in sub-Roman antiquity.]
Fig. 5. Early Scotland. The Four Kingdoms

p53 Bede, writing in the early eighth century, speaks (H. E. III.IV) of the Picts as a whole as divided into two main bodies, the Northern and the Southern Picts, separated by 'steep and rugged mountains', and the chief land communication must always have been through the Pass of Drumochter, described in a medieval itinerary as 'passagium pessimum sine cibo'. Throughout the historical period the Southern Picts occupied the valleys of the Tay and the Earn, and appear in our records as divided into four provinces:

1. Athfotla (Atholl), the old kingdom of the Caledonii with their capital at Dunkeld ('The dún or fortress of the Caledonii), dominated by Mount Schiehallion ('The shee, or supernatural hill, or Caledonians'), perhaps their sanctuary. During the Pictish historical period their capital was at Scone.

p54 2. Circinn or Girginn, i.e. Forfar or Angus and Kincardine or the Mearns, largely the fertile Strathmore, the lower valley of the Tay, with its capital at Forfar near the foot of Turin Hill, known today as Dunnechain ('the dun of Nechtain'; see p64 below).

3. Forthriu or Fortrenn on the upper waters of the Earn and the Forth, an important through route to Dálriada.

4. Fib (Fife), with its seaboard capital at Kilrymont (the 'Cell' or early religious monastic foundation of the 'royal hill'), today St Andrews.


[image ALT: Two maps of Scottish island groups: of the Orkneys, of the Shetlands.]
Fig. 6. Early Scotland (The Islands). The Tribes

It is possible that in the sixth century the chief Pictish power was in the north, where St Columba visited King Brude mac Maelchon3 whom Bede calls rex potentissimus;4 but as one stands today on the great Iron Age hill-fort of Castle Law above Abernethy and surveys the line of hill-forts to the north, the whole valley of the Tay comes into view as a nucleated p55area, surely always the heart of Pictavia. And when in 685 King Ecgfrith of Northumbria struck at the heart of Pictish power under its king, Brude mac Bile, it was at Forfar that he was slain. From the sixth century onwards the struggle for p56supremacy between the Picts of the north and south, and of both with the kingdom of Dálriada, forms the recurring and the most important theme in the history of Scotland till the union of the two peoples in the middle of the ninth century; and with the union, the beginning of what we mean today by the country of Scotland. A subordinate but important theme, running like a thread through the struggle during the whole period, is the relations, now friendly, now hostile, between the kingdom of Dálriada and the Britons of southern Scotland. Meanwhile the Bernicians of Northumbria were gradually extending northwards, and also making heavy inroads into these British kingdoms, till finally halted in the north by Ecgfrith's defeat and death.


[image ALT: A map of Scotland, showing tribal groups in Roman and sub-Roman times, with Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall.]
Fig. 7. Early Scotland (the Mainland). The Tribes


[image ALT: An engraving of a very stylized sea-horse, drawn in one continuous line, except for the eye: shaped like a lock of curly hair with a snout, it is a Pictish stone carving.]
Fig. 8.
Sea-horse, Pictish symbol stone engraving (after Diack)
All indications bear out our traditions of the Picts as a powerful nation. Some two dozen Pictish inscriptions exist, and their distribution covers the north and east of Scotland and corresponds closely with that of Pictish art represented by the 'symbol stones' to be described later. With two or three exceptions, in which the inscriptions are written in Latin letters, the Pictish inscriptions are written in the native Celtic ogam alphabet, and have not been deciphered; but they are believed to be late, and mostly to be assignable to the eighth and ninth centuries.5 Thus, while they confirm our impression of the high material culture and coherent political organisation of the Picts, they tell us nothing of their history.


[image ALT: A map of Scotland, showing Hadrian's Wall, the Antonine Wall, a few mountains, the Pass of Drumochter, and about 30 towns: places important in Pictish times.]
Fig. 9. Early Scotland. Sites mentioned in the text

At some point before the embassy from Nechtan IV, king of Angus, to Abbot Ceolfrith of Monkwearmouth in the year 710, the Picts evidently had a class of ecclesiastics who could read and write. It is uncertain at what precise period the Picts as a whole became literate. We have occasional references to statements said to occur 'in the ancient documents of the Picts'6 (in veteribus Pictorum libris), but this probably merely refers to lists in calendars kept in Pictish churches. A number of versions have survived of what is commonly referred to by p58modern historian as a 'Pictish Chronicle',7 but these contain little more than lists of early kings, sometimes with brief notes attached. These lists are, in their early stages, manifestly the product of antiquarian speculation, and are wholly unreliable,8 while the notes are often later additions to the texts, and equally untrustworthy.

On the other hand, from about 550, when close contact was established with the literate kingdom of Dálriada, the names in the Pictish king-lists are evidently genuine, for most of the names are recorded in the Irish annals and other historical works. This impression is strengthened by the fact that the names of the fathers of these kings are recorded in the Pictish king-lists, and by the actual unfamiliarity of many of the kings' names. Among the Picts succession was through the female, and so the introduction of the fathers' names is probably a late intrusive feature in the succession. The traditions of the Picts suggest that the fathers were often, if not usually, members of unrelated clans, sometimes foreign princes on a visit.9

We are in a stronger position to trace the outline of the history of the Scottish kingdom of Dálriada.10 In the first place our sources from neighbouring peoples are much fuller, for Dálriada faced the western seaboard which carried a busy traffic throughout our period between the Celtic countries on its borders. Some of these Celtic areas, moreover, had been literate from the sixth and possibly the fifth century, and, though the Irish Chronicles in their present form are later, Irish annals throughout our period and down to c. 750 serve as a useful check on Scottish events, especially the events of Dálriada. Furthermore, the Scottish kingdom of Dálriada had kept a short Chronicle,11 probably on the island of Iona, from the seventh century at the latest. This probably consisted originally of nothing more than brief notes added in the margin of an ecclesiastical calendar whose primary purpose was to indicate p59the reckoning of the proper dating of Easter; but it developed ultimately into a Chronicle which may, indeed, in its early stage, have itself served as a basis for entries in the Irish annals. Dálriada being of Irish origin and character, it is quite natural that the Irish annalists regarded it as one of their own kingdoms.

The Scottish king-lists12 trace, first the line of the kings of Dálriada, and later the kings of the united Picts and Scots — i.e. Scotland as a whole — from Erc, the founder of the dynasty in the fifth century, down to the time of Malcolm III (d. 1095), or later. Thus all the Scottish kings are derived from a common ancestor, Fergus mac Erc.13 The earliest part of the list is made up of the so‑called Chronicle of Dálriada. Its source is unknown, but there was a 'Scottish' king-list in Ireland in the eleventh century, containing the lengths of the kings' reigns. This is now lost, but there are other Irish historical works of the period which show the Irish well informed about the early Scottish kings.14

A still extant general survey,15 probably drawn up in the seventh or eighth century, enumerates the general muster of sea and land available in Dálriada. It incorporates a brief narrative giving some details of the arrival of the sons of Erc from the kingdom of Dálriada in Ireland. The fleet carried 150 men, and was led by three brothers, Fergus, Loarn, and Aengus. Little is known of Loarn, but his family, referred to as the Cinél Loarne ('the kindred of Loarn') occupied the northern part of present-day Argyll with their seat on the site of Dunolly Castle at Oban, a site well placed for communication with p60Ireland. The family of Aengus occupied Islay, and of the descendants of Fergus, Gabrán had Kintyre and Knapdale, with his chief stronghold on the rock of Dunadd surrounded by Crinan Moss. The families of Loarn and Gabrán played the chief part in Dálriadic politics, and for many years were rivals for supreme power. The eventual rise of the Cinél Gabráin to pre-eminence in Dálriada is doubtless due to the political sagacity of St Columba, who was the chief man in the power politics of the sixth century and who eventually 'ordained' (ordinavit) Aedán as king of the Cinél Gabráin in succession to his cousin. Aedán has left his impression on history as Dálriada's greatest king. He remained loyal to Columba till the end of his life, and it was undoubtedly their joint statesmanship which guided the destiny of this little Irish-speaking colony in Argyll until it amalgamated ultimately with the Pictish kingdom of Scotland. Already in 628 the Irish annals speak of his son and successor, Eochaid Buide, as rex Pictorum.

Meanwhile the kingdom of Dálriada was gradually penetrating eastwards into the territories of the Southern Picts, and towards the middle of the eighth century came to a clash with Angus mac Fergus, the most powerful of the Pictish kings. It was probably about this time that the Scots penetrated into Atholl and Fife.16 The period 780‑840 is obscure, as the Irish annals, hitherto our chief guide to Dálriadic history, fail us at this point; but it must have been one of the most momentous periods in Scottish history, for we are on the eve of the union of the Picts and Scots. The actual union was completed under the Dálriadic king, Kenneth mac Alpin, who died in 858. In all probability it came about as a gradual process, largely through intermarriage, for after 781 the Dálriadic kings generally bear Pictish names, and there is no hint of a Pictish conquest to account for this. The Pictish law of inheritance through the female doubtless greatly facilitated a union of the two peoples by intermarriage.

p61 It is not known whether Kenneth obtained the Pictish throne by any right of succession, or by conquest. The view reflected in later chronicles is that it was by conquest. The Chronicle of the united Picts and Scots,17 which dates from the tenth century, states that Kenneth ruled Pictavia for sixteen years after he had 'wiped them out' (delevit). Other texts also speak of a destructio of the Picts; but it is remarkable that no hint of such a conquest is given by records in Irish, British or English. The Irish annals, in recording Kenneth's death in 858, call him 'king of the Picts', and the title remained in use by the Irish and even the Welsh annalists till the time of his grandson. But the actual subjects of Kenneth himself and of his successors are referred to as 'Scots', and the Picts soon came to be thought of as a people of the past.

From now onwards Dálriada loses its importance. The centre of power shifts from the west of Scotland to the east, and the Scottish element in the aristocracy becomes dominant. The Dálriadic kings now live and rule in the old Pictish kingdom, and henceforth the chief royal seat is at Scone on the lovely bank of the Tay a short walk above Perth. The mound in the grounds just behind Scone Palace still marks the site of the traditional dwelling of the Pictish kings.

The British kingdom of the part of Scotland south of the Antonine Wall,18 the immediate neighbours of both the Dálriadic Scots of the west and the Picts of the east, had emerged as a result of the withdrawal of the Romans from the northern defences. They developed in the fifth and sixth centuries under independent native princes, their territory corresponding with that of the tribes whom they succeeded. Their function had been throughout the centuries, and still remained, that of defending the territories of the Britons from alien aggression. Those in the east, in succession to the Votadini, stretched southwards from the Forth to the Tyne, and were known as the p62Gododdin, keeping the old name Votadini in a 'Welsh' form. Those in the west, known as the Strathclyde Britons and the Cymry (the older form was Cumbroges, 'fellow countrymen', 'Cumbrians') stretched from the Clyde probably to the borders of Mercia and even North Wales, and included Elfet (modern Elmet) near Leeds, till the conquest of Elfet by King Edwin of southern Northumbria, probably before 616. The Welsh of Wales recognised them as close kin and spoke of them familiarly in later records as the Gwyr y Gogledd ('The Men of the North', that is to say, 'Our northern neighbours').

These northern Britons were Christians and literate, but they have left no written records apart from a few stone inscriptions. Some annals or notes were evidently kept in the seventh century, and have been incorporated by Nennius into his History of the Britons,19 but no independent annals have survived in their own right. On the other hand each British court had its official bard responsible for composing panegyric and elegiac poetry to enhance the reputations of the chiefs and to celebrate their part in contemporary events, and also to preserve and perhaps transmit the genealogies.20 All of these constitute a highly important source for our knowledge of the period, for these oral traditions were carefully preserved by the bards and eventually written down in the ninth century, not however in the North, but in Wales.21

Many of the North British families can be identified from their genealogies. The most authentic is the dynasty of Ceredig Gwledig of Dumbarton in Strathclyde (cf. p40 above), and in the sixth and early seventh centuries their chief king was Rhydderch Hael ('wealthy'), sometimes also called Hen ('old'), who is referred to in Adamnán's Life of St Columba as Rodercus filius Tothail. He seems to have been reigning before the saint's death, and also as a contemporary of Aedán mac Gabráin; he is famous too in traditions of both St Kentigern and the prophet Myrddin (Merlin).

p63 The most important of the princes of Cumbria was Urien of Rheged, with his chief centre doubtless at Carlisle, and his territory the coast-lands of the Solway and Morecambe Bay. Nennius tells us that he was the greatest war-leader whom the British had, and his family is both the most prominent and the most distinguished in the traditions of the North, both military and ecclesiastical.

It will be seen that the British territories stretched in a long unbroken arc from Edinburg to the Welsh Border and indeed on to Land's End, and its double frontier made it a particularly difficult territory to defend. On the west were the encroaching Irish; on the north their ancient enemies, the powerful and warlike Picts; on the east, the dauntless Anglo-Saxons. The only chance of survival would have been solid unity among themselves, and a far-sighted policy of union with one of their most powerful neighbours in the North. At first, under the leadership of Urien, they were strong enough to take the initiative against the invaders from the east. Nennius (ch. 63), deriving his information from the seventh-century written records referred to above, tells us that Urien with three other British princes — Rhydderch, Gwallauc, and Morcant — fought against Hussa, king of Bernicia (i.e. the northern part of later Northumbria); also that Theodric, apparently a successor of Hussa, with his sons fought bravely against Urien, yet Urien besieged them for three days and nights in the island of Metcaud (Lindisfarne), but was murdered by Morcant out of envy (invidia).

After this early British campaign against the invading Anglo-Saxons and the murder of Urien, the Britons were never able to form alliances effectively among themselves. The picture which their traditions reflect is that of a number of inchoate small states, with little conception of political stability, in fact what we have come to call a 'heroic' society. The most famous of their battles, celebrated in Welsh poetry p64and recorded in the Welsh Annals in 573, was the Battle of Armterid (modern Arthuret),22 near Longtown on the Solway, 'fought for a lark's nest', as a Welsh Triad has it,23 between Gwenddoleu, one of these British princes, and his own cousins, Gwrgi and Peredur. The 'lark's nest' is perhaps Caerlaverock (the caer or fort of the laverock or lark), an important strategic harbour in early times commanding the approaches to the Solway on the northern bank. The Welsh poems claim that the poet and prophet Myrddin (Merlin) lost his wits when his lord Gwenddoleu was slain, and that he afterwards lived the life of a wild man in the Forest of Celyddon (Caledonia) in Scotland.

We possess a splendid collection of poetry from the next generation commemorating a disastrous expedition of the men of Manau Gododdin into Northumbria, and their battle against the Angles, probably near Catterick in Yorkshire, in which they were annihilated to a man; but after the murder of Urien the history of the Men of the North is in general that of a rearguard movement. From the sixth century, the Angles gradually extended their territory up the whole of south-eastern Scotland, and by the beginning of the seventh this area was under their king Aethelfrith. The western British kingdoms remained independent till a much later date, and the Anglian spread westwards has left no records of severe military actions; moreover, the marriage between King Oswy of Northumbria and Riemmelth, certainly a Briton, and probably the grand-daughter of Urien, suggests that Rheged came into Anglian hands by peaceful negotiation. Strathclyde remained independent for centuries, and the northward extension of the Angles was checked when Oswy's son Ecgfrith met his death at Forfar in his thrust into southern Pictland in 685. It was, nevertheless, this gradual extension of Anglian territory northwards and westwards that ultimately created the Scottish Lowlands with the introduction of the English tongue.


p158 The Author's Notes:

1 See Jackson, 'The Pictish Language,' ch. VI in Wainwright, P. P.

2 Reference may be made to a paper by the present writer: 'The name Pict', S. G. S. VIII (1958).

3 The name is basically identical with that of Maelgwn, the ruler of North Wales (cf. p70 below).

4 Is this Bede's translation of a Celtic title comparable to the Irish árd‑ri ('high‑king'), and the British Ver‑tigernas ('chief lord'), later Vortigern?

p159 5 Jackson, 'The Pictish Language,' in Wainwright, P. P., 139.

6 Reference may be made among other examples to a suspicious document claiming to be an ancient record of the foundation of St Andrews, which claims that the scribe has copied the contents as they are found in veteribus Pictorum libris. See H. M. Chadwick, E. S., 28. Cf. M. O. Anderson, S. H. R. XXIX (1950), 17. Cf. also p56 above.

7 Most of the texts of the early Chronicles were published by Skene, P. S., and discussed by him in C. S. I. For detailed extracts, translated into English, see A. O. Anderson, E. S. I, passim, and cf. especially the Bibliographical Notes, xiv. For a general study of the subject see H. M. Chadwick, E. S.passim. An indispensable study is that of M. O. Anderson in three contributions to S. H. R. XXVIII, 1 and 2 (1949), XXIX (1950). The best version of the Pictish king lists is that of Skene, P. S., 4.

8 Cf. H. M. Chadwick, E. S., 81.

9 See H. M. Chadwick, E. S., 96, 98, and important references there cited. Nearly all the king lists are printed in full in Skene, P. S.

10 For a general outline reference may be made to Cf. H. M. Chadwick, E. S., 121, though this study now needs to be checked by the later researches of M. O. Anderson, especially as indicated in the references to the S. H. R. (see above).

11 On this subject see M. O. Anderson, S. H. R. XXIX (1950), 18.

12 On the Scottish king-lists see M. O. Anderson, S. H. R. XXVIII (1949), 108.

13 In the Irish language Eirc is the genitive of Erc; Gabráin of Gabrán, etc.

14 Notably the Synchronisms by Flann Mainistrech and the Duan Albanach by an unknown author. The fullest edition of this poem is by Jackson, Celtica III (1955), 149. The most useful work is the text, translation and commentary by the same scholar in S. H. R. XXXVI (1959), 125.

15 Published by Skene, P. S., 308.

16 See the important note by O'Rahilly, E. I. H. M., 371, and n1.

17 Text A. See Skene, P. S., 8.

18 See Jackson, 'The Britons of Southern Scotland', Antiquity XXIX (1955), 77; D. Kirby, T. C. W. S. LXII (n.s. 1962).

p160 19 See Jackson, loc. cit.; and more fully by the same author 'The Northern British Section in Nennius', in C. S., edited by the present writer.

20 See Bromwich, 'The Welsh Tradition', S. E. B. H., 83.

21 See 'Early Culture and Learning in North Wales', by the present writer, S. E. B. C., 1.

22 Skene, F. A. B. W. I, 65, 66.

23 Bromwich, Triads, no. 84.


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